|In 2010, the first “nudge unit” was established at the heart of the office of the then Prime Minister, David Cameron: the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT). This was inspired by the seminal work of Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler as well as Danny Kahneman, through best sellers such as “Nudge” and “Thinking Fast and Slow”. Since then, the concept of applying behavioural economics and nudges to public policy using randomized controlled trials has gained currency. As a result, many governments have dedicated institutional set ups for policy experimentation – typically at very senior levels – and there are more than 20 of these to-date. An even larger number of governments have started using behavioural sciences and related tools – without dedicated institutional set-up – at various stages of policy formulation, implementation and assessment.
Surprisingly enough, this has not come to the Middle East until recently with Qatar leading the way. Indeed, since August 2016, the Qatar Behavioural Insights Unit (QBIU) was launched and is being incubated in the office of the Secretary General for the Supreme Committee H.E Hassan Al Thawadi. That Unit is working on a variety of policy areas including sports and healthy lifestyle, workers welfare, sustainability …
Lebanon is next in line to officially embrace behavioural sciences in its applications to public policy, but this time as a non-governmental initiative: through Nudge Lebanon.
Several factors drove this. Primarily, a realization that many of the challenges we face in Arab countries – including Lebanon – have strong behavioural roots that cannot be effectively addressed using the classical tools of enforcement no matter how heavy handed they happen to be. Nor can these challenges be addressed using costly financial incentives. Behavioural economics tools, including nudges, are important for complementing classical policy levers.
Another driver for this initiative relates to the level of disintegration in Lebanon in the role of government and public service delivery over the last few years. As a result, nudging and the use of behavioral tools are not only another option, but the only option to create behavioural change at individual and national levels. I should hasten to add that nudging should not in principle be seen as an alternative to the two classical policy tools, but an ideal companion thereof.
Thirdly, Nudge Lebanon should be seen as a reaction to the “free fall” of evidence-based policymaking. At a time when data and numbers are mere “points of view” among discussants, there is a need for Government and NGOs to approach policy challenges with greater reliance on applied and evidence-based tools. What works is not what we think works, but was tested to work, ideally using RCTs and other types of experiments.
Last – apologies if this should sound a tad personal – Nudge Lebanon has been part of a venture I have been slowly working on since 2005, since I left Government, but that fell prey to one of the most evil of all “System One” biases, namely procrastination. That undertaking – originally as a consumer protection initiative – underwent many transformations over the last 12 years, but at the same time benefited from a remarkable maturation process. During that period, not only did I expand significantly the concept of consumer protection to cover citizenship and civic angles, but also changed the name of that initiative from “Consumer-Citizen” to the current “Nudge Lebanon”. The former will still resurface as the jewel offering of Nudge Lebanon for academia: the Consumer-Citizen Lab, which will design and deliver courses to university students on the applications of behavioural economics to public policy, allowing them to go full circle with field experiments on real life policy challenges. In particular, the Consumer-Citizen Lab seeks to fill the gap in collaboration and partnership in policymaking between academia, Government, NGOs and citizens in Lebanon. It works for the common good of the country and seeks to harness some of Lebanon’s toughest policy challenges using the power of behavioural insights, and placing consumer-citizens and academia at the heart of the game.
Apart from the co-founders – Maha, Fatima and Mazen – a small group of like-minded social entrepreneurs have joined me at various stages of this initiative, and in no time, became wedded to its social purpose, and are now part of the Nudge Lebanon family.
Much await us in terms of attempting to inject behavioural insights into the policymaking landscape. Over the coming few years, we intend to do that using the three pillars of Nudge Lebanon: observatory for policy research, lab for policy experimentation and platform for policy advocacy.
Under the observatory component, we will monitor best practices in policy experimentation, analyse nudges and RCTs from the region and around the globe to draw lessons learned, and assess relevance as well as potential for replication while bearing in mind that “context matters”.
Under the policy experimentation pillar – our bread and butter – we will design and implement nudges using RCTs and other types of trials.
Under the third pillar – policy advocacy – we will translate results obtained through experiments into concrete policy recommendations to key stakeholders including Parliament, government agencies and NGOs for them to integrate in their work and strengthen their evidence-base.
Beyond Lebanon, we will seek to disseminate knowledge around behavioural economics and the power of its application to public policy settings across the Arab region, in collaboration with other initiatives, in particular, the Qatar Behavioural Insights Unit. We will partner with national and regional champions to promote the culture of policy experimentation and nudge them towards greater adoption of behavioural insights into what they do.
At the end, greater reliance on behavioural science, policy experimentation and other evidence-based tools has a lot of potential for Lebanon and the region: for governments in delivering services, NGOs in carrying out civic missions, private organizations in conducting their business, and consumer-citizens in going about their daily lives.
Behavioural insights and nudging have finally come to Lebanon and the Middle East, and we are proud that we were, and will be, part of this transformative innovation.